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Big issues await small screen in 2011

Changing of guard tests TV's mettle

Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin bid adieu to NBC U while Bob Greenblatt made plans to move in. Simon Cowell bowed out of “American Idol.” ABC said goodbye to “Lost” and Steve McPherson. Conan O’Brien said so long to broadcast TV entirely, and Oprah Winfrey is about to join him.

Those and many other tumultuous events this year were just the warmup for what promises to be a year of change and realignment for the TV biz in 2011.

CNN is looking for new life in primetime after Larry King. Pay cablers are nervously eyeing their subscriber churn numbers as Netflix’s aud and programming menu continues to grow.

The broadcast nets are grappling with the new-fangled problem of measuring viewing dispersed among many screens, including the oh-so-portable iPad. But even more fundamentally, there’s the age-old problem of coming with new programs that viewers want to watch — on any screen.

All of the comings and goings, new beginnings and new technologies are fueling a host of burning questions. Among them:

What’s the first order of business once the Comcast-NBC Universal merger is a done deal?

Incoming NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke has famously been called a “day one” kind of guy, and the Comcast brass has had months of quiet time to map out their strategy for the merged company.

It’s already clear who’s going to be running what division once the merger is finalized, but all eyes will be on Bob Greenblatt as he jumps in to revive the ailing Peacock. Greenblatt won’t have any time to rest, as he takes command right at the start of pilot season. The exec has been familiarizing himself with NBC development, and insiders believe he’s been consulted on most of the net’s more recent development plans.

Long-term, Greenblatt’s not known for making rash decisions. The exec took his time getting situated at Showtime, where he kept most of the executive structure there intact. It’s unclear where he might want to make changes first. At ABC, new entertainment prexy Paul Lee, who was recruited to replace McPherson in July, made his first big move with an exec shuffle in the marketing department — an area where visible changes can be made the quickest.

Meanwhile, many insiders expect more changes to take hold at the new Comcast-NBC U sometime in the middle of next year, as a second wave of executive shuffles likely takes place.

Will viewers embrace the new Cowell-free “American Idol”? And will Cowell’s “The X Factor” conquer the U.S.?

Fox is just weeks away from launching the 10th season of “American Idol,” complete with new judges (Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez) and new timeslots (Wednesday and Thursday).

“Idol’s” ninth season was down 10% vs. the previous year, and even the show’s most ardent fans agreed that 2010 was a lackluster season for the singing competish. (Quick, name this year’s winner — not easy, right? It was Lee DeWyze.) And those declines came with big “Idol” draw Simon Cowell still in his judge’s chair.

“Idol” sans Cowell essentially means a brand new show. But after the initial interest in new judges Tyler and Lopez subsides, “Idol” producers know they’ve got to redouble their efforts to find contestants that viewers will actually be invested in. Small tweaks — such as a younger age of eligibility and a move to put cameras back in the home shared by contestants — may be a start. But Fox, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment execs are praying that producers this year discover another Carrie Underwood rather than another Lee DeWyze.

Meanwhile, should “Idol” continue to falter, Fox bought some insurance last year by picking up Cowell’s “X Factor” for fall 2011. But with more singing competitions on the way — including NBC’s upcoming “The Voice” — there’s no telling whether viewers will be fatigued on the format, even with the return of the caustic Cowell, by the time “X Factor” finally launches.

Will Oprah’s minions flock to her new cable network? And who benefits most from the Oprah void in daytime syndication?

The cable world will rumble on Saturday when the Oprah Winfrey Network officially takes over Discovery Health’s position on the dial.

Plenty of ink has already been devoted to the launch of OWN, a joint venture of Winfrey and Discovery Communications. But regardless of the struggles OWN has faced pre-launch (including multiple executive rosters and a change in programming strategy), the real test comes in the next few months, as Winfrey looks to make OWN her audience’s new favorite thing.

OWN’s initial feel-good programming strategy threatened to emulate the early missteps of Oxygen, which began life under a similar on-air mix (Winfrey was even a partner). There’s still plenty of broccoli on the menu, but OWN’s fare has already been tweaked to include more snack food.

Then comes Winfrey’s syndication departure in September. Whether viewers flock to OWN or wind up dispersed between local news, Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper’s new yakker or other sleeper contenders remains to be seen.

Can CNN regain any mojo, and is Piers Morgan the new king?

CNN ended 2010 in terrible ratings shape, tumbling 34% in primetime vs. 2009 among total viewers. The drop was equally steep in the key news demo of adults 25-54; as a result, CNN is now far behind No. 2 MSNBC.

The cabler got a bit of a lift for Larry King’s final show earlier this month — but with the signature King off the air, and newcomer “Parker Spitzer” failing to make any noise, new CNN U.S. topper Ken Jautz faces an uphill battle.

For now, the best that CNN can do is tout its cume audience (which isn’t sellable) and hope for big news, which brings casual viewers back to the channel.

Jautz can also hope for some sort of early tune-in interest for Morgan, the “America’s Got Talent” judge who might be able to create some early buzz depending on the caliber of his guests.

But long-term, Jautz has already told the Wall Street Journal that he hopes to inject more opinion and personality into CNN’s middle-of-the-road strategy. Look for the new topper to attempt to make some noise next year.

Will the networks regain their programming mojo in time for fall 2011?

A year after “Modern Family” and “Glee” injected a life (and awards prowess) into primetime, the networks stumbled once again this fall.

While cable celebrated the launch of new signature series like AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” FX’s “Justified,” HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Showtime’s “The Big C,” the best the Big Four could come up with was a decent popcorn TV redo of “Hawaii Five-0.”

For next fall, the networks are anxious to launch more event-size series like Fox’s “Terra Nova,” which already has a full order.

Among the other questions to look out for in 2011: Who might replace CW’s Dawn Ostroff, who’s expected to exit the young femme-centric network at the end of this season?

Meanwhile, with David Letterman’s CBS deal set to expire in 2012, speculation over his future may start to heat up.

The Eye will also have to come to terms shortly with Katie Couric, whose contract to anchor the “CBS Evening News” expires in 2011. Couric is expected to remain, but perhaps with a pay cut.

Over at NBC, “Today” show anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira’s contracts also expire in 2011.

But all of these pale in comparison to the great unknown out there — how viewers might continue to embrace services like Hulu, Netflix and Google TV, and perhaps turn cord-cutting and a la carte TV viewing into a bonafide threat. Stay tuned.

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